Op-Ed: Can We Win Against Climate Change? We’ve Already Started!

Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune explains why there’s more cause for hope than despair when it comes to climate change solutions.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune (second from right) argues that we're already winning the fight against climate change. (Photo: Getty Images). 


Jun 9, 2013
Executive Director of the Sierra Club, America's oldest, biggest, and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

Seven years ago, many Americans learned about climate disruption at the movies. During the past year, they experienced it firsthand. Last year, superstorm Sandy was just part of $110 billion in disaster-related climate damage in this country, and each of the 12 years since the turn of the century has ranked among the 14 warmest on record.

At this point, the American people don't need to be told that climate disruption is a problem. But they do need to know what we can do about it. Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Every day, the dirty-fuel industry works to sell the idea that we would be helpless without its product. From CEOs and lobbyists to corrupt politicians and media mouthpieces—they want to make sure that fossil fuels maintain a lock on American politics and energy production. They want to bathe fossil fuels in an aura of inevitability. We need oil, coal, and gas from tar sands, mountaintop-removal mining, and fracking because, well, "we always have and always will."

To move forward on climate disruption, we must cast away that aura forever. We can start by highlighting something most people still don't know:

Here in the in the U.S., we're already approaching a tipping point in the battle against climate disruption.

Decades from now, we'll look back and see this as the moment when we started winning. How can this be? We've done it by targeting the biggest sources of carbon pollution and starting a clean-energy revolution.

Climate enemy number-one, of course, is coal-fired power. Coal pollutes and destroys at every step—as it is mined, as it is transported on dusty railways, as it is burned, and as its waste is dumped upon the landscape. Over the the past decade, however, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, largely driven by grassroots volunteers in neighborhoods directly affected by coal pollution, not only has stopped the proposed construction of 175 new coal plants but also has helped secure the retirement of 144 existing plants.

Largely owing to the success of this and other grassroots campaigns, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by the United States has reached a 20-year low. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, during the past six years the U.S. has cut carbon emissions more than any other country. As dirty coal comes offline, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that we're not replacing one problem with another by allowing fracked natural gas to suppress the growth of clean energy like solar and wind.

What about other sources of pollution, like the cars and trucks we drive? It turns out we're making big progress here, as well. It started in California with a bill to limit greenhouse gases from tailpipes. More than a dozen other states copied California's bill. And then the Obama administration followed suit.

Then, late last year, the Obama administration announced new standards for how many miles a passenger vehicle will be required to drive on a gallon of gas. You may have heard about this 54.5-mpg requirement, but you might not know the really good news embedded in that story. As a result of those standards alone, total carbon emissions from the United States will decline by another 10 percent. You read that right: One rule will deliver a 10 percent cut in emissions.

Getting rid of dirty fuels is important, but so is replacing those fuels with clean energy. The U.S. is now the world's number-one wind power, with more than 60,000 MW of capacity. That's enough to power nearly 15 million homes. Last year, rooftop solar in the U.S. grew by 76 percent as we added more solar to the grid than we did during all the years prior to 2010. And guess what? The cost of solar PV panels is still falling.

Are renewables anywhere near their potential? Not even close. As we accept that the dirty-fuel emperor wears no clothes, we come closer to realizing the full potential of clean, renewable energy. Renewables accounted for more than half of the U.S. generating capacity we added in 2012; in March 2013 100 percent of the power added to the grid came from solar energy.

No question: We face formidable challenges. But the successes we've already seen are solid evidence that we are not be as suicidal a species as the fatalists imagine. As Gandhi liked to say, the difference between what we're doing and what we're capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems. Let's work together to close the gap.

Photo slideshow courtesy of The Sierra Club

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